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Tuesday, September 25, 2007

A fun ride to the Poor Farm

Finally, one thing the Bush folks and I can agree on: Streetcars are largely a waste of money. Buses are more effective and cheaper, and they better serve the "masses" that "mass" transit is supposed to serve.

The answer back from Portland's streetcar fanatics is that the shiny toys spur high-density development in inner city cores, and somehow buses don't do that. But assuming that high density is a good thing, is that really true? Sure, when they first hit town, Portland's streetcars helped sell condos in the Pearl. But that era is now over -- way over, and it's probably not coming back. The novelty of the trolleys has worn off. Isn't it time to come to our senses and spend our scarce transit dollars as prudently as possible?

The core of the extremely soft reasoning behind streetcar mania is encapsulated well in this morning's O piece on the subject:

Through the Small Starts program, Congress directed the federal bureaucracy to give streetcar proposals credit not just for moving people efficiently but for spurring growth nearby in the form of restaurants, shops, apartment and condominium buildings. Bus routes, which can easily change, do not show such corollary development.
I'm having a lot of trouble believing the cause and effect that's being offered so uncritically here. How often are bus routes changed in Portland? Rarely or never. So permanence can't be much of a plus for streetcars. The only appeal of fixed-rail trolleys appears to be their novelty. Could the same level of "sex appeal" be generated with some sort of innovative electric, alternative fuel, or hybrid vehicle, which would be more nimble, cheaper to operate, and far more flexible? Of course.
Blumenauer introduced the Community Streetcar Development and Revitalization Act in 2002 to create a federal program to help other cities use streetcars the way Portland does. He points to neighborhoods like the Pearl District and South Waterfront, where developers say the streetcar has helped make possible a dense mix of housing and businesses.
Geez Louise, Earl. So far, SoWhat is not a "dense mix" of anything but construction mud, apartments, the OHSU health club, and people looking for a parking space. If that's your example of streetcar nirvana, you're not going to convince too many people of the wisdom of your position.
If the Eastside Streetcar is built, about 4,537 housing units would be added along the route, compared with 1,105 without it, according to estimates for TriMet by economic consultant Eric Hovee of Vancouver.
Whoa, stop the presses -- some guy hired by Tri-Met says the streetcar is our salvation. Break out the checkbook for another $100 million based on that?

If what is desired is a smart-growth, planned city, it can easily be achieved without extravagant, slow streetcars. Please, let's get real.

Comments (18)

Bus routes do indeed change -- just look at downtown right now -- and so can streetcar routes, just not as easily. But that's sort of a straw man argument, I think. There's no way the benefits of a streetcar -- if any -- can justify its relatively high cost (and in the cost you have to include the disruption involved in laying the track). The streetcars, the overhead wires and the track are all iconic. They'd be nice to have if we had the basics covered, but we don't. The streetcar gambit was a hook to get federal money. It isn't working. It's time for plan B ("blacktop").

As long as the trolleys are subject to the same traffic congestion as everyone else using the street, then they really don't provide an appreciable advantage. However, if streetcars were removed from the flow of traffic or were somehow given right of way, then the argument could be made that they are providing a quicker mode of transport than the private passenger vehicle. Of course, that's the idea behind light rail, which we already have. Plus, there's no good reason you can't have hybrid buses (just for the sake of "sexiness") running in dedicated bus lanes. They're doing this already in Eugene... which I fear may be a reason why the powers that be would rather go with the more expensive and "urbane" streetcars. After all, we wouldn't want to be mistaken for some hick town...

Streetcars = euro

Buses = stupid capitalist materialistic american

See the difference?

This is Earl's legacy project while ignoring more important issues. The undiscussed part of this is that over a thrity year period once this thing is built it will have to be re-built. Just the cost of basic maintenance over that period will probably come close to the original cost, if not more. That includes track maintenance, rebuilded all the cars as well as the overhead wiring. So get ready to pony up them presidents. Turn your pockets out. It ain't your money. Its someone else's.


And it is NOT just federal dollars,; it is local private dollars as well.
"Local Improvement Districts" were already established ages ago.
Most of us have already gotten our "first estimate" for our portion of this tax. And you do not have to be on the main drag to get taxed either.
It is "the Pearl" all over again!
You thought the west side trolley was slow...wait till MLK and Grand are stuffed up with a toonerville trolley!
I guess busses are just not a sexy as those Skoda jobs!

"Finally, one thing the Bush folks and I can agree on"

Is that the sound of hell freezing over I hear?

This is only tangentially related, but count me in if there's an "Anybody-But-Adams" organization forming out there anywhere (please!). Adams is a hyper version of "borrow, tax and spend big." First he pushes this eastside streetcar, then he's out thumping for the Convention Center Hotel, then he's thumping a special "road" improvements tax, and he's also pushing increased city Arts funding. In November, we are going to be hit with about a 10 percent increase in property taxes, stemming from last year's bond measure approvals. Can't we first adjust to the new property taxes before getting hit with Adams' big tax financed projects? Calling "Anybody-but-Adams" people.

Adams is merely trying to spur things.
You see it takes big bunmches of tax dollars to spur things.
No, trams, streetcars and light rail don't spur squat.
Big tax subsidies were required everywhere the expensive transit toys appear.
Either it's Transit Oriented Tax abatements, Historical tax abatements,
waived fees, free infrastucture, affordable housing tax abatements or even essentially free property bought by the city or Metro and handed over to developers.

No not even the Pearl was spawned by streetcars. Massive subsidies across the board were needed.
Gresham Station, Cascade Station, SoWa, Beaverton Round and every Transit Oriented Development got tax subsidies big time.

The Tram was nothing compared to the 100s of millions in free infrastructure handed to SoWa developers and OHSU.
Same for the Pearl.
In fact all of these areas could have and would have taken advantage of the free stuff without the transit.
The Pearl would have been further along had the many millions not been wasted on streetcars and convenient rubber tire shuttles been used instead. More of them, better service, faster trips and more frequent and flexible would have meant better overall public transportation.
Those who continue to push the fraud Smart Growth are despicable.

Those who continue to push the fraud Smart Growth are despicable.

You do have to admit, there is a certain brutal beauty to the length and depth of their deception and theft. I mean, I admire them the same way I reluctantly have to admire any group of particularly ruthless gangsters, like the ones currently squatting in DC, on both sides of the aisle.

Cynical, I know, but I have to get humor out of things somehow, to keep from going nuts.

That's a point well taken Cabbie, but from what I see we have an overwhelming supply of people here who view all things coming from the DC gangsters as lies and deceit while failing miserably to recognize any lies from our local Adamsters.

Then to further our quagmire the few who do recognize the many electeds and bureaucrats who are doing the lying around here buy every word those same liars say about M37 etc.

And further screwing us up is 1000 Friends, RiverKeepers and the Coalition for a Livable Future support every Tram, Pearl, streetcar, tax subsidy, Gresham Station, Cascade Station, SoWa, Beaverton Round, Transit Oriented Development, light rail and Smart Growth
while condemning M37.

When in reality they are horribly wrong all all counts. Smart growth and M37.

Jack, I don't share your antipathy for the concept, ('mass transit'), yet we may agree that the execution has left much to be desired, (mainly in the acts and deeds of pathetic political figures afflicted with various combinations of the seven deadly sins, starting with pride).

The dollar parametric in all of the circus is insignificant, as an 'error,' IMHO. Sounding defensive: NOT saying I don't appreciate the importance and value of 'ten million here, ten million there, pretty soon you're talking real money,' but AM saying I more importantly appreciate the scale of things, (a la Stephen Covey: "deal with the big things first"), where Oregon's 1-percent share of Iraq's $3 Billion-with-a-B per WEEK, is 30 MILLION bucko's per WEEK -- WASTED for WMD LIARS -- and THAT is separate from OVER $TEN Billion-with-a-B per WEEK for the useless obsolete unnecessary Pentagon and DoD -- in FACT the enemy of America, citizens and democracy -- wherein Oregon's 1-percent is OVER 100 MILLION slammolies per WEEK.

Abolish the CIA. Abolish the Military. Improve everyone's Quality of Life. Get a BIG tax relief. THEN I could turn my concern aligned with yours exposing and arresting local hicks, grifters, sleazebags, thieves and public graft cons. Exclusive focus on such local losers, while quite important, before global megalomaniacal goons are gotten rid of, simply seems distracted like unto penny wise and dollar foolish. (A penny is one-hundredth of a dollar. A million is one-thousandth of a billion.)

If the Eastside Streetcar is built, about 4,537 housing units would be added along the route, compared with 1,105 without it, according to estimates for TriMet by economic consultant Eric Hovee of Vancouver.

Funny thing about estimates made by consultants... sometimes the "professionals" don't know what they're talking about. They just know more about the subject than whoever agreed to pay them for advice. That's not always saying much.

The quote above reminded me of many years ago when I worked for a private company in the Portland area that built senior living centers. As the tech guy it was my job to write the software that would crunch the market analysis numbers, based on a formula that had been developed for the company by a paid consultant. This formula would take various data about the market region, including how many housing units were already in the market, and would supposedly tell us how many additional units the market could support.

Useful information for finding an optimal location if you're about to sink millions of dollars into construction.

The problem was, as soon as I tried to implement the formula in our software I found a glaring error. If you took the number of units the formula said the market could bear, and re-run the formula changing only the number of units as if all supportable units had already been built -- the formula would tell you that the market could still support almost as many new units as before.

In other words, there was no practical end to the number of houses the market could support, according to this formula. So it wasn't very useful after all.

Of course, when I brought this fact to the attention of upper management, I was told that someone my age (I was in my early 20's at the time), who didn't even have a college degree, couldn't possibly know more than the far more experienced consultant (who had been paid, after all, tens of thousands of dollars for his magic formula). So they proceeded full speed ahead using demonstrably inaccurate data.

Hey, not all mismanagement is limited to the public sector... ;-)

Concerning "estimates made by consultants", include city staff too.

Matt Brown of PDOT made the assumption that SoWhat will have 40% transit usage. This assumption justified the building of the trolley, even before much has been built. Just pick a number, smile, and City Council will endorse an idea.

Same is happening with the Convention Hotel. Metro, CoP makes some assuptions, get a report from Hovee, then all is well. It was Hovee that said SoWhat was financially viable, the trolley was needed. But what is happening in SoWhat, its broke, all projects have exceeded budgets, and TIF dollars are not being generated as predicted. Maybe the O, WW, Tribune might be reporting this soon if they ever review the SoWhat URAC budget coming up for review, and ask the right questions, and not just questions to PDC staff, but other people in the know.

My main problem with the Portland Streetcar is that it's SOOOO slow! Have you ever noticed that it's frequently faster to WALK than to wait for the thing?

And just because I'm here, I'll go ahead and say that when the MAX trains, buses AND cars return to 5th and 6th Avenues downtown, things are going to get real interesting. Walking around that area is going to resemble a live-action version of Frogger.

Isn't Oregon Iron Works in Clackamas ramping up to build streetcars? If so, there's going to be some serious momentum to build more and more streetcar lines... just like Prague, our transportation model.

Bus routes do indeed change -- just look at downtown right now -- and so can streetcar routes, just not as easily.

They changed because of train construction. And, they will go back when they are done. (or so Trimet says)

They changed


"THEN I could turn my concern aligned with yours exposing and arresting local hicks, grifters, sleazebags, thieves and public graft cons."

So if Bush blows money then Sam gets a free pass to blow money also? You really make no sense.

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